Applying to graduate school — How many is too many when asking a reference to write letters of recommendation?

I just received an e-mail from a former student who is applying to graduate school and had questions about the letters of recommendation:

I am writing to ask about the proper protocol for asking for multiple letters of recommendation. I ask because I’m applying to about six grad programs. While I only need 2-3 letters, I need about 6 copies. Is it in poor taste to ask one person to send letters to so many places? Or should I try to find more people to write letters?

She has asked about an issue that everyone who is making multiple applications (for grad school or jobs) should be asking. How many is a reasonable number of recommendations to ask someone to write? So here’s how I responded.

In terms of letters of recommendation, the law school application system is ahead of other graduate programs.

The law school applicant sets up an account with the Law School Adminission Council (, indicating which law schools she wishes to apply to and listing the names of the individuals who will be her references. She then provides me a form from LSAC. I complete my portion of the form and attach it to the letter of recommendation I’ve written and mail that to LSAC. That one letter is used in the application package for each of the law schools she is applying to. I receive an e-mail confirmation that my recommendation has been received and processed. She receives that information, too, and knows who has and who hasn’t submitted letters of recommendation.

Not so with grad school applications. Every program has its own application process. If one is applying to two graduate programs at the same university, typically that requires completing two separate applications.

Most grad school applicants are like my former student. If they really want to increase the possibility of being admitted into a graduate program and to have some options, they should apply to more than one program. Consequently, they need more than one letter from each reference.

The computer is a positive for those of us writing recommendations. Once you write the first letter of recommendation for the applicant, you can save the letter and then modify it for future letters for that same student.

I told my former student that asking someone to write letters for six programs wouldn’t be excessive. Here are some tips for helping the potential recommender to say “yes” to your request for multiple letters of recommendation:

– When you initially contact the potential recommender, explain your situation — why you are applying to graduate programs and why you are applying to six — and why you’d like this person to be a reference for you. This is the sales pitch (a sincere one, of course). I’d met with my former student earlier this semester, so I was aware of her current work situation and her interest in applying to graduate school. If it’s been a while since you’ve been in contact with your potential recommender, you will need to spend a little time updating the person on what you’ve been doing since you last were in contact.

– In contacting the person (via e-mail or phone), be sure to say that you realize how busy the person is and say that you’d be pleased to have them as a reference but if six is too many to let you know how many they could write.

– Say that you will be able to e-mail your resume/vitae and statement of goals. This will help the reference know how you are presenting your own case and also to know your professional and academic background. Even if the reference currently is one of your teachers, you want to provide that information and not just assume they remember your professional background, etc.

– Tell the reference what your deadline schedule is. Your deadline can be the deal breaker. The person is willing to write the recommendations, but you’ve waited too late. You need the letter sent within the week, and the person has too many other deadlines to take on writing letters for you. So plan ahead. Unlike many jobs that can open up with little or no notice, graduate school applications are consistent from year to year. If the grad school deadline is Jan. 15, you should be contacting your references by late November or early December so you aren’t asking the references to be writing for you during finals or during the holiday break.

– If you can provide them with all the grad school application material at one time, that can be helpful rather than sending the grad school information for each one in a separate e-mail and have those e-mails spread out over several weeks.That may or may not be possible.

– Be sure to send the needed submission information — mailing address, URL for uploading, etc. And be sure to include the deadline for each program.

– Send an e-mail reminder to your reference at least a week before the deadine.

– After all your applications are completed, send a thank-you e-mail or note to thank the person for taking the time to write on your behalf.

– Be sure to let your reference know the outcome of the process.

Miss Manners would have good advice for all of us in terms of staying in contact with people who have been and can be important in our professional lives and not just waiting until you need a letter of recommendation to contact a former teacher or employer.

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